ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins continue to give their fans a reason to stay away. They're going to have to figure out a way in the offseason to bring them back.
The numbers haven't been good: Two weeks ago they drew an 11.8 rating; barely topping the Eagles-Rams game, also on at the same time, in this market. Last week they were second in the market behind the Baltimore Ravens. There were thousands of empty seats against the Arizona Cardinals last week, and there will be more of the same for Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos.
Some of the malaise stems from years of false hope and a segment of the fan base having had enough.
It's not because of a 6-8 season; it's because of so many years of -- as corner Josh Norman said last week -- average to below-average play. The Redskins might finish with three straight non-losing seasons, but they would have one playoff season in that period. Given how their schedule turned out (second-hardest based on opponents' winning percentage) coupled with injuries, an 8-8 mark would be pretty good. (The Redskins will quickly point out: They are one of six teams whose ratings increased this season and their no-shows are among the NFL's lowest. It's clearly a strong fan base; they attend in strong numbers on the road, too. But there has been a growing discontent years in the making).
Still, it's hard to build a marketing campaign around average. And they haven't appeared in the postseason in consecutive years since 1991-92. They've swung and missed, and fans' emotions have paid a price.
There have been big free agents -- Deion Sanders! Bruce Smith! Jeff George! Nada. There have been big coaches hired: Marty Schottenheimer! Steve Spurrier! Joe Gibbs! Mike Shanahan! They reached a combined three playoff games.
It's Lucy pulling the ball away from Charlie Brown time and time again for Redskins fans. It's no wonder the ratings have dropped or that attendance has decreased. Winning would bring it right back.
In addition to the lack of winning over the years, here are three key factors that have chipped away at the Redskins' fan base:
Robert Griffin III
It's hard to overstate what Griffin's arrival meant to Washington. Griffin signaled legitimate hope for the first time in a while. After the Redskins traded up in the draft -- and before selecting him -- Griffin did a card show in northern Virginia. Hundreds attended, and many reacted as if greeting a legend; others wore the Superman socks Griffin popularized. He would lift the franchise out of its doldrums.
When he starred as a rookie, the possibilities were endless. If nothing else, the Redskins had a future superstar at the game's most important position. Everything that happened afterward tore down that optimism, piece by piece. He was hurt and wasn't the same player after his return. Over the next two years, there were multiple leaks and stories discussing coaches' displeasure with him.
A symbol of hope had crashed hard. It took some fans a few years to believe that, yes, perhaps Griffin wasn't what they thought. But who could blame them? They were told he'd transform the NFL; they saw his rookie-year feats; they believed a return to glory was just around the corner. Then it vanished. After 10-6 in 2012, they won seven games the next two years and Griffin was gone after 2015. What fans viewed as a potential golden era turned into one of massive disappointment. Again.
Kirk Cousins' contract
The Redskins have used the franchise tag the past two offseasons on their quarterback because they couldn't strike a long-term deal. In the first offseason, the organization wasn't ready to trust Cousins was for real and pay him accordingly. In the second, Cousins wasn't ready to believe in the franchise and was content playing under the tag.
The result: Two years of debate over what happened, who was at fault and how much is he really worth. It's led to intense nitpicking over every single pass. Was that a $30 million throw? Or a $20 million one? Or less?
It's exhausting and unhealthy, regardless of blame. For some, it was hard to invest belief in the Redskins' future. If quarterback is the most important piece, then who would be playing there for the foreseeable future? It's hard to find a good quarterback; would the Redskins really let one get away?
For others, if the Redskins paid him in the $30 million range, they're convinced it would wreck the franchise because of the cap space he would occupy. It's a reasonable argument.
One more thing: They could tag him again this offseason. So the saga might continue.
Scot McCloughan's firing
This wasn't as much about McCloughan being ousted as it was about the lack of trust and faith in the organization. McCloughan was a self-proclaimed alcoholic who also acknowledged he had not stopped drinking (this was a bad pairing from the jump). Rumors about personal habits abounded. Multiple people who worked under him grew concerned.
Right or wrong, had he been fired by, say, the New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers, it's hard to imagine anyone feeling the organization was doomed or had made the wrong move. McCloughan, though, was largely popular among the players because of his passion. He was also what Redskins fans longed for: a general manager with an eye for talent.
Like Griffin, he offered hope when he arrived after two seasons in which they had won a combined seven games. Most of McCloughan's early moves did not pay off, but the wins increased -- Cousins' development played a huge role. McCloughan, though, was beloved.
For many Redskins fans, his firing became a referendum on team president Bruce Allen and owner Dan Snyder as a whole. Rather than ask why they had hired someone with McCloughan's self-acknowledged issues, they decried the firing and expressed little faith in the direction of the franchise. The problem: No one in charge had a track record of building a winning football operation. Allen was part of good franchises in other stops, but he was in a different role with Washington.
Under Allen, the Redskins have a 51-74-1 record. Now, last offseason, the Redskins were asking fans to trust him again as he rebuilt the front office. Perhaps the new structure works; it hasn't been in place for a full year. Perhaps it fails. But the fans are jaded after way too many years of being asked to trust a process that has yet to pay off. It's hard to blame them.
Redskins fans have been patient for a long time. Every time they're asked to believe, they're ultimately let down. Until the organization delivers in a much bigger way on those promises -- as in winning consistently -- the erosion will continue.